When Children Must Be Saved from Their Saviors

Back when cases involving missing children – many of them runaways from foster care – were making headlines in Washington, D.C., Marie Cohen rushed to try to shift responsibility from a failing foster care system. She told us to be sure to remember that a majority of missing children in the District of Columbia “are fleeing their own homes, not foster care.”

That’s a testament not to the success of foster care but rather to the immutable laws of mathematics. Despite the best efforts of those pushing endlessly for a take-the-child-and-run approach to child welfare, a majority of children still live in their own homes, so those will be the homes from which a majority of runaways run.

To get a sense of the extent to which foster care is a horror show for District children, one needs to look at the proportion of runaways from their own homes and from foster care. Foster children represent less than one percent of all D.C. residents under age 18.  Yet they represent ten percent of the missing children.

This is not exactly a testament to the success of foster care.

In fact, in another column Cohen herself recites a litany of what she deems horror stories about D.C. foster parents she encountered.  Well, not quite a litany – she cites three examples. From there she tells us “many” foster parents “siphon off” money meant for their foster children and that she had to “parent most of the youth in my caseload because their foster parents did not do so …” [emphasis added].

But sweeping generalizations based on horror stories are no more valid when aimed at foster parents than at birth parents. And even if, in fact, systematic research reveals a widespread problem of D.C. foster parents in it for the money, the likely cause would be an anomaly. Unlike most the country, D.C. has a history of paying foster parents way too much.

The Real Horrors are Revealed by Data

The real reasons to worry about needless foster care are the studies showing abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes – a problem illustrated in tragic detail this week by the Arizona Republic – and the studies showing that the inherent trauma of foster care placement is so great that, in typical cases, children do better when left in their own homes. (If anyone conducted a betting pool to predict the paragraph in which I would cite those studies this week, congratulations to those who chose #7.)

Oddly, having spent most of this particular column trashing many foster parents, Cohen suggests that, somehow, if you put foster parents together in one place and call it a “foster care community” everything will be fine. She does not explain how these communities will have only the good foster parents she wants, and not the bad ones she condemns.

Or we could just do what Cohen always recommends: Institutionalize the children! Because if an institution’s own website says it’s wonderful, who cares about the research proving this is the worst possible option – or about all those scandals over the tendency of institutions to turn into hellholes – the most recent examples exposed in Philadelphia in April and in California in May.

Of course, institutions do have one big advantage: All the children are in one place. That is not an advantage for the children; on the contrary, the problems with putting a whole lot of young people who may have serious emotional problems in the same place right at the age when they are most vulnerable to peer pressure should be obvious.

But it’s a great advantage for caseworkers who might be upset about what an imposition it is upon them to have to spend time in a motor vehicle with the children one is supposedly helping, or even, declares Cohen, saving.

As she has before, Cohen complains about driving foster children. In the course of listing some of the things that prompted her to quit her job as a caseworker she writes:

Things that I did that the foster parents were supposed to do included: take my clients to the doctor, the dentist, and the therapist. Talk to their teachers. Pick them up from school when they were sick. Wait with them for hours at the emergency room.

I’m sure that, as she sat beside frightened, vulnerable foster children she’d taken to the E.R., Cohen tried to hide how much she resented having to be there. I hope she succeeded.

Extra time spent with foster children, wherever it may take place, could be viewed as a gift, not a burden. It’s a chance to talk to a foster child without interruptions, truly get to know her or him and, maybe, discover new ways to help. The same is true of chances to talk to foster children’s teachers.

There are times when parents really are horrible and children really need to be saved from those parents. There are times when foster care really is the least detrimental alternative. But everything from the mass of research to the foster children who vote with their feet tells us that, sometimes, what children really need is to be saved from their saviors.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).